Thurman, Sue (1903–1996)

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Thurman, Sue (1903–1996)

African-American civic leader and religious worker. Name variations: Sue Bailey Thurman. Born Sue Bailey on August 26, 1903, in Pine Bluff, Arkansas; died in San Francisco, California, on December 25, 1996; youngest of ten children of Isaac George Bailey (a minister and educator) and Susie (Ford) Bailey (an educator); graduated from Oberlin College, B.S., 1926; married Howard Thurman (a minister and theology professor), on June 12, 1932 (died 1981); children: (stepdaughter) Olive Thurman (b. 1932); Anne Thurman Chiarenza (b. 1933).

Met with Mohandas Gandhi in India (1936); founded and edited Aframerican Women's Journal (1940); cofounded the Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples, San Francisco (1944); established the Faculty Wives Hostess Committee for Service to International Students, Boston University (1953–64); edited International Cuisine, Kairos Press (1957); served as a board member of Boston University Women's Council, Harriet Tubman Community House, and South End Music Center; was honorary president of the Museum of Afro-American History, Boston; granted honorary doctorate, Livingstone College (1967).

The African-American spiritual and community leader Sue Thurman was born in 1903 in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, the daughter of educators and the granddaughter of former slaves. As well, Thurman's paternal grandmother was a Native American of the Cherokee tribe. Her father, a minister and Arkansas state legislator, founded a school for black children before his death in 1913. Thurman's mother also established educational facilities for black children and taught classes for women as well. Sue Bailey was sent to the Nannie Burroughs School for Girls in Washington, D.C., and in 1916, at age 13, to Spelman Seminary (now Spelman College). She graduated in 1919, and moved to Ohio to study music at Oberlin College. Following her parents' example, she was active in student organizations, including serving as the first president of the Negro Student Forum as well as in the International Club and the World Fellowship Committee of the YWCA. Thurman became the first black student to receive a degree in music from Oberlin in 1926, and finished her liberal arts degree soon after. She took a job teaching music at Hampton Institute in Virginia, where she supported the student social protests in 1928. Reconsidering music education as a career, that summer she led a YWCA group to Europe. In 1930, she became traveling secretary of the national YWCA based in New York City, assisting women students at black colleges across the country.

Two years later she married Howard Thurman, whom she had known while a student at Spelman and who had recently been appointed professor of theology at Howard University. The couple had one child together, Anne, born in 1933; they raised Howard Thurman's child Olive from his previous marriage as well. After she married, Sue Thurman left the YWCA to coordinate the Howard University Faculty Wives organization, which assisted students and visitors to Howard. She also wrote and lectured on African-American history for the Howard University community.

In October 1935, as part of the Student Christian Federation effort to promote international friendship, the Thurmans began an eight-month trip to Burma (now Myanmar), Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), and India. Sue Thurman studied at the University of Santineeketan in Bengal, India, with the poet Rabindranath Tagore, and met privately with Mohandas Gandhi, with whom she discussed nonviolent resistance and spiritual leadership to effect social change. When she returned to the United States, Thurman began an ambitious lecture tour about Indian culture at American and Canadian colleges; the proceeds funded scholarships for black women to study in India.

Following the lecture tour, she founded a new magazine with the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW) in Washington, Aframerican Women's Journal. In the early 1940s, she was a leader in the NCNW, directing its library and museum collections. In 1944, however, the direction of her work changed when Howard Thurman took a leave from Howard University and they moved to San Francisco. Over the next decade, they were instrumental in the creation of the nation's first racially integrated and internationally oriented church, the Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples.

With the church strongly established, the Thurmans left San Francisco in 1953 for Boston University, where Howard Thurman became professor of theology and dean of Marsh Chapel. They remained in Boston until 1964. As she had done at Howard, Sue Thurman established a committee of faculty wives, again to promote international understanding and aid foreign scholars at Boston University. She arranged honors and testimonials for notable African-American artists, including poets Phillis Wheatley and Georgia Douglas Johnson and the noted tenor Roland Hayes. Additionally, Thurman worked with her daughter, Anne Thurman Chiarenza , to create a map of the "Freedom Trails of Negro History in Boston." To raise money for loans to international students, Thurman edited a cookbook of international cuisine, published in 1957. Tireless in her volunteer efforts, Thurman was founder of the Museum of Afro-American History, as well as chair of the World Refugee Arts and Crafts program of Marsh Chapel, and board member of the Boston University Women's Council and the Harriet Tubman Community House. She dedicated much of her time to teaching and promoting black history, and organizing events on campus to honor African-American heroes. One of these events was the 1957 exhibition of specially commissioned dolls, created by the black sculptor Meta Warrick Fuller to represent important African-American women of the 19th and 20th centuries. The exhibit traveled across the U.S. before the dolls were finally donated to Spelman College. The following year, Thurman edited The Historical Cookbook of the American Negro, published by the NCNW.

After her husband's retirement in 1964, the Thurmans traveled as missionaries and educators to Africa and East Asia before settling in San Francisco to resume their work with the Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples. Although they were not directly involved in the black civil-rights movement themselves, Thurman and her husband were friends and supporters of such civil-rights leaders as Alberta Williams King —with whom she had attended school—her son Martin Luther King, Jr., and Jesse Jackson. In addition to founding international libraries at Arkansas State College, Spelman College, and Livingstone College in this period, Thurman also served as director of San Francisco's African American Historical and Cultural Society.

Howard Thurman died in 1981. Sue Thurman then became head of the Howard Thurman Educational Trust, which they had founded in 1964 to provide scholarships to black students as well as inspirational materials. She died in 1997, about age 94, in San Francisco.


Smith, Jessie Carney, ed. Notable Black American Women. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1992.

Laura York , M.A. in History, University of California, Riverside, California

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Thurman, Sue (1903–1996)

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